My recent attendance at the Smart Classrooms eLearning Innovation Expo has sparked and inspired my reflections… and as a result.. I think I’ve just about written a book… long reading but the process for me was very worthwhile!
The inclusion of digital technologies as part of a child’s education is welcomed by some, but resisted by many. Early adopters continue to climb the somewhat new wave of learning with digital technologies, while many just don’t understand how and why. Leaders struggle with how they can have their colleagues join them on the journey, or perhaps even start the journey. As leaders, our role is imperative – but are we taking the right approach?
While a range of frameworks across the world have been developed to show and support teachers with using digital technologies, are they sending the right message or is the message just not understood?
On a day to day basis I engage with a range of educators either trying to lead the digital technologies agenda or trying to join (or perhaps resist) the journey. After attending a recent conference, I reflected… why is it that many of our teachers struggle with the integration of digital technologies? And what does this mean to us, as leaders in our profession?
Firstly, I need to highlight that I do believe there is a place for early adopters in our system and innovation and creativity is a must! . But if we want to influence the majority of our profession – is it innovation that will influence the majority or is it something else?
Digital technologies have long been recognized as an essential 21st century learning tool. Yet, not everybody welcomes digital technologies into their repertoire of teaching and learning strategies.
It is not unusual to hear a teacher comment “I’m too busy… I have a heavy curriculum that I need to cover”. Or “I don’t have time to learn how to use the technologies”. Sound familiar? And I’m sure many of us hear other comments too.
I don’t think that we need to debate whether digital technologies have a place in our classrooms, however we need to have an understanding of our learners – and assist our peers in reaching their own understandings. What has changed?
Students are considered to be ‘different’ now than in previous education eras – some will agree, others will disagree. But we can probably agree that today’s students are world-wise, have a range of skillsets that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and come from a larger range of cultures (global) and socio-economic situations. Some consider today’s learner to be more disengaged in school, and generally behavior issues are seen as the fault. Yet our students have a quench for learning beyond the classroom, on their terms. Stephen Heppell (2009) refers to the “age of learning” – an exciting time for us and our students.
Teachers (also learners) often feel overwhelmed and overworked – doing the absolute best they can within their own contexts. We have what we regard as “early adopters” – those who are willing to take a risk, try new things and be innovative! They lead the way and are often held in high esteem for their incredible efforts. Our system provides us with an incredibly busy curriculum – with teachers feeling a professional and moral obligation to ensure that students learn the content and can demonstrate what they know (just as they’ve always done).
And just how have the tools available to us as educators changed… the blackboard is almost extinct… We still have our concrete materials, learning centres and so on… and now we also have digital technologies. We really have just about any tool we want, at our fingertips – but how do we support our colleagues in seeing the value of these tools?
Mark Treadwell (2009: Keynote Presenter ) at the Smart Classrooms Innovation Expo spoke about the “learning paradigm of the book” and the “learning paradigm of the internet” – suggesting that we have moved into a new educational age. He emphasised that teachers are doing the absolute best they can – within the “learning paradigm of the book”. However, if we are to accept the “internet paradigm” as our current learning paradigm then perhaps what we’ve always done, just doesn’t work any longer for the students in our classrooms. A somewhat different approach to education is required – knowledge is no longer static and it doesn’t just sit within our books or our teachers. Just as, when book were introduced to society, our approaches to learning had to change. Students have access to knowledge from just about any expert or source they choose. But what they do what that knowledge… is where the role of the teacher is still very very important.
Yes our students are generally technology savvy… but are they savvy in learning? Sure they might know how to use a mobile phone or an iPod touch… but what do they use it for? Some assumptions about using digital technologies:
They’re sexy and savvy! (Don’t get me wrong – I love sexy and savvy… but will it be the right way to influence our teachers)
That’s what the students live and breathe? (so… what they live and breathe changes faster than what we know)
It will give them what they need for the 21st century? (now just what is the 21st century going to look like and are those skills a static entity)
They’ll be more engaged and motivated to learn? (mmm.. but for how long… before the next thing comes along)
But is this our job as teachers! You will note that I take on two perspectives here – because yes I am a classroom teacher who has experienced the digital wave and now work in a leadership role of supporting and influencing other teachers.
As educators, we need to stop, take a step back and put our roles into perspective. Ultimately we’re all here for the same thing – to prepare our students for their life, now and tomorrow! But what that life might be, is perhaps an unknown. So what is it right now that we can support our students with?
If you knew that you could provide opportunities for learning to be efficient in your class and for your students so that you were meeting your curriculum requirements yet you were preparing ALL of your students for lifelong learning – would you consider it?
If you knew that you could focus in on the individual needs of your learners, so that you could provide learning opportunities that pinpointed exactly what that student needed, would you consider it?
And let’s stop on that curriculum point! We often hear “but we have to cover the curriculum’ comment, but is it about coverage or is it about access? Let’s face it – most educators are driven by a curriculum – we have system requirements – we are accountable – and for now, we have an obligation to teach the curriculum we are given. BUT we are not told HOW the curriculum needs to be taught – we are trusted as professionals to choose strategies, to create learning opportunities, to organize our own learning environment so that all students can access the curriculum.
So let’s consider how digital technologies might benefit our students. Consider the following scenarios:
A year 4 (8 year old) South East Islander boy is very disengaged, rarely participates let alone completes set learning tasks in the classroom. The current learning task is to ‘explain how an object flies’ integrating both science and English subject areas. Quite a challenging concept, but not unreachable for the students. The child is not a prolific writer nor he is comfortable to orally present to his peers. The teacher provides multiple opportunities for students in the class to demonstrate this concept. One of those is to use “PhotoStory” – a multimedia program (free) that allows the user to add audio, visual and text media. A pod of computers within the environment allows students to use the computers for their task, if this is their preferred option. The use of an IWB in the classroom to model an example, demonstrates a) the task b) the genre c) the concept d) provides some initial “skillset” on using Photostory (within context). Some students catch on quickly, others don’t. Some of these become ‘experts’ to tutor their peers. The role of the teacher – to guide, to support, to provide opportunities for all students. The boy completes this task, producing an oral explanation with visual text to represent his understanding of how an object flies. In addition to the curriculum, he self manages, he gains confidence, he achieves, he thinks, he applies, he explains, he communicates, he asks, he plans, he operates – and he succeeds!
Is it about curriculum coverage or is it about curriculum access?
The teacher provides a maths ‘challenge’ and asks students to think out loud how they would solve the problem, while gathered around the IWB in a small group activity. An interactive touch calculator is available or they can choose from other tools – calculators, whiteboards, pen/paper. Most of the students have seen the use of interactive tools for maths so have an awareness of these too (modeled, not explicitly taught). One particular boy – the one who usually sits at the back, chats, yells out anything but a maths dialogue – starts to watch what others are doing. A few kids use the board to demonstrate their thoughts out loud… but this boy comes up and starts to press the calculator buttons to explain the answer, he chooses the wrong button – the students help him out – risk taking, learning together, scaffolding, thinking out loud, metalanguage ….. power to the learners!
Is about sexy&savvy or is it about learning?
Consider the child in your class who doesn’t typically contribute to group discussions – the one who might by shy, might lack confidence or might just not engage in thinking out loud discussions. The use of an online discussion forum would provide 24/7 access to the child – so allowing them to engage with the discussion in their own comfort. They are given the opportunity to read responses contributed by other students, reflect on their own thoughts and then contribute their response when they are ready. I have seen this happen so often – not only does the child contribute a response (therefore participate in learning) but often choose (self direct) to add further contributions as they reflect on the responses of other students – leading to deep thinking and understandings.
Is it teacher centred or student centred?
Is this a record of student learning?
Learning objects – an interactive multimedia learning activity – fortunately available to all EQ staff via the Learning Place. Honestly, have you seen the range that’s available. Presented at a recent conference was a learning object that not only shows how a heart functions, but also enables the students to manipulate variables to see their effects. They can revisit and revise the concept until they understand it. Try doing this activity via other methods. I’m not saying that everything real needs to be replaced by virtual experiences…but there are times when learning efficiency needs to be considered in our classrooms so that students can engage in higher order thinking challenges, rather than the lower end of the thinking spectrum.
Is it using ICT for the sake of using ICT or is it choosing the most appropriate tool for this context?
Is it denying access to the curriculum or enabling access through the visual /auditory / kinaesthetic needs of learners in your class?
Take the student who wants to gather data from an authentic audience… Free tools such as surveymonkey.com provide students with opportunities to not only choose who their audience will be, but a tool that collates the data and presents it in a number of ways for students to then focus on the interpretation and analysis of that data.
Is it make believe data collection & analysis or is it authentic and rich?
Jeff Souter (another presenter at the Innovation Expo) presented several ways of using technologies with students with special needs. One particular example that I engaged with, is the use of a ‘text to speech’ add-in called wordtalk (free application) with Microsoft Word where students could type text, and then listen to what they have typed. The add-in also has a spell check and rather than look at the list of available spelling, relying only on visual cues, students can click on the word and listen to it first. My own 8 year old daughter has great difficulties in engaging with the traditional strategies used in the classroom… this strategy would be absolutely amazing for her, providing her a different perspective on learning and giving her an opportunity to succeed with learning, based on her individual learning requirements.
Is this about catering to the different learning requirements of our students – providing them with multiple opportunities for them to access learning as well as be successful learners?
In my role as a mentor to teachers pursuing the Digital Pedagogy Licence, I am fortunate enough to read the personal reflections and journeys of teachers who are using digital technologies to enhance learning and teaching. One particular teacher I often remember reading about…. Created a Virtual Classroom for his year 3 students… their unit was an environmental study, linked to a real life project within their school, where they would be improving their environmental area. The virtual classroom was used in a number of ways – but one particular learning activity allowed students to ask questions to an environmentalist (somewhere in the world) and have authentic responses to their questions – using an asynchronous communication tool. The environmentalist was not locked into a ‘one hour’ tell all visit to the class, but was able to support the learning of the students, when and if required – building on the prior knowledge and experience of the students and being there at the critical moment of self development.
Do you limit your students to the expertise they can access or do you tap into what’s at your fingertips?
Is learning always a planned event or can it be self directed and independent?
Do you just give students what they need to know at this moment OR do you provide opportunities for students to learn how to learn so that they can survive in an ever changing society?
So let’s start to think about the scenarios above… I have purposefully described scenarios that I think highlight the ‘point’ of what I am trying to get to.. the means by which we should be using to influence our colleagues – the experts about learning. They are not ‘high end’ or ‘innovative’ ways of using technologies but they are meaningful ways. Is it that we need to first support our colleagues with an initial achievable success with learning, before they contemplate the “chasm” (Treadwell, 2009) presented by today’s learning landscape.
Firstly, the focus has to be about learning and teaching – who are the learners, what do they prefer and need, what do they already know, what strengths do they bring to their learning – and not just within the context of a class, but in the context of their individuality. What is our curriculum intent? What deep understandings would you like students to develop? And how will this prepare students for TODAY’s landscape?
Secondly, you do need some knowledge about the available tools – but it isn’t just a teachers own knowledge, it is the collective knowledge of the learners, and the learning networks that the teacher belongs to. It’s the knowledge of how a tool can be leveraged to suit the teaching and learning focus, not the knowledge of how to use the tool. Sometimes that means taking a risk – experimenting – reflecting – but aren’t these the exact skills we want our students to use in their learning?
Thirdly, it has to be a tool that supports efficient yet productive learning outcomes. There is absolutely no gain in using digital technologies if learning outcomes could have been achieved through alternative richer contexts. There has to be a point in using the technology.
Digital technologies afford us with the amazing opportunity of being able to focus in on individual learning needs, perhaps more now than ever before – while achieving the intent of the curriculum.
Let’s go back to basics and I don’t mean the 3r’s – let’s just get back to good learning and teaching – this is a teachers specialty, however the landscape has changed and our role as leaders and educators is to support teachers in the new landscape. It isn’t about bells and whistles, it isn’t about how good we might be – because we’re as good as our students our so they must come first. If our primary focus is good teaching and learning for today’s landscape, then how can digital technologies not be part of our extensive toolkit. Why would we not use the best tools available to us, to help us find a way for every child to not only reach but excel in their learning.
As leaders in education, our role is to support our colleagues in focusing on ‘the point’ – good teaching and learning! Let’s support them with a meaningful success in using digital technologies in their classrooms so that they develop their own understandings and a passion for this wonderful “learning age”.
Many will state “but we don’t have the skills” – or “how do we keep up with technology”. Let’s face it – can anybody keep up with technology? Is it our job to be the expert in all available technology or is it our job to be the expert in teaching and learning. Can we not recognize when a student discovers, creates, analyses, explains, infers, evaluates.. and so on, regardless of the tools they use? Yes, there is an aspect of technology skill that we might need, but it isn’t about us – it’s about our students. Do we have the right to deny them the best learning opportunities available?
Heppell (2009) refers to the “age of learning” an “exciting time” for us today – and boy is he on the mark. There has never been a more exciting time, except perhaps when the book was first introduced. Did educators all over the world get excited then? Did some resist the change? Did some fear the change for it changed society? Treadwell (2009) states “we are entering the most dramatic paradigm shift in learning ever” so let’s embrace it – and focus on the amazing opportunities we now have to develop learners for the 21st century.
I have referred to several speakers from the Smart Classrooms eLearning Innovation Expo (2009), including:
Heppell, Stephen Professor (2009) – founder of Ultralab: : Keynote speaker at the Smart Classrooms eLearning Innovation Expo: Finally it’s clear to everyone
Treadwell, Mark (2009) Keynote Presenter at the Smart Classrooms elearning Innovation Expo http://mediasite.eq.edu.au/EQ/Viewer/?peid=ee936725-f66d-4cbd-bc27-f20cc50419ab and author of “Whatever! The conceptual age and the evolution of school 2.0”.
Souter, Jeff (2009) – Learning Development Centre: Presenter at the Smart Classrooms eLearning Innovation Expo: Universal design for learning: Using ICT to maximise the learning of all students